“First Wives Club” Hits the Second City

Christine Sherrill is no stranger to the Chicago stage. This Jeff Award-winning actress has worked in some of our best theatres, including the Goodman, Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace, the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, and Northlight Theatre. But when she faces the audience on the opening night of “First Wives Club” at the Oriental Theater, it will be in her first leading role in a Broadway-bound musical. She was starring in the touring company of “Mamma Mia!” in Las Vegas when she was called in to an L.A.-based audition for “First Wives Club,” which she and her agent figured was a long shot. Happily, it wasn’t.

According to Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (of “Designing Women” and Clinton best-friend fame), who wrote the book for the new musical, Sherrill “came in for her audition and she came in like a wrecking ball, as Miley [Cyrus] would say. She did one of the most powerful scenes in the show…and to say she nailed it doesn’t cover it. It was one of the best auditions I’ve seen for anything.” Bloodworth-Thomason continues, “She’s got a lot of that ‘Goldie [Hawn] dust’—a little quirky, and she’s hilarious, and like Goldie, you just root for her.”

A reworking of the 1996 hit movie based on the 1992 best-selling book by author Olivia Goldsmith, “The First Wives Club” tells the story of four best friends from an East Coast college, starting with the suicide of one, despondent that her ex-husband has married his much younger mistress. And then there were three, all members of the “First Wives Club,” dumped by their hubbies for newer models.

Sherrill takes the part of Elise, played by Goldie Hawn on screen; Broadway legend and Tony Award-winner Faith Prince plays Brenda (the Bette Midler role); and Carmen Cusack, who you might have seen as Elphaba in “Wicked,” is Annie (Diane Keaton in the film).

“You can see a little bit of Linda Bloodworth in every one of these characters,” says Sherrill. “They still love men, and they love being alive, and they leave hopeful that they can find love again. I think Linda brings all of that…she brings the heart, and the feminism and the warmth.” That warmth extends to the cast. No cattiness here; it’s a veritable love fest between the cast members and the creators of the show. Director Simon Phillips, the New Zealand native who brought “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” to Broadway, gets high praise from both Sherrill and Bloodworth-Thomason.

Photo by Jenny Anderson.

“I consider myself pretty spoiled coming from Chicago,” says Sherrill. “It’s a very kind and supportive theatre community. So I prepared myself for the worst, but it’s been a great experience for me. He’s definitely not the stereotypical New York director; he’s lovely, and so dedicated. I think he averages three hours of sleep a night.”

Bloodworth-Thomason also raves about Prince (“a different part for her… she’s astonishing and commanding”) and Cusack (“she’s got that vulnerable Diane Keaton thing in spades, and she’s achingly funny”). “We really couldn’t have a better cast, and that’s the truth,” says Thomason. “If I didn’t love them, I’d say something nice, but not to this extent!”

Surprisingly, Bloodworth-Thomason says she hasn’t read Goldsmith’s book, and only saw the movie once, although she has based her story on the movie’s strong characters. Her inspiration came from countless readings of the screenplay. She did keep some of the great lines from the movie, but 90 to 95 percent of the musical’s book is new. “It’s kind of a reincarnation of ‘Designing Women’ meets the ‘First Wives Club,’” she says.

The rehearsal process for “First Wives Club” included a two-week lab for producers and Broadway houses in September 2014, followed by a five-week New York rehearsal in January and early February, and then tech in Chicago at the Oriental Theatre.

It was a fascinating first few weeks in New York for Sherrill, who got to see firsthand how a new show is built. “It was about taking Linda’s book and getting the orchestrations in, having the Holland Brothers there, piecing it together. [It was] such a reward to put the whole first act together,” she says. A new anthem, “Shoulder to Shoulder,” closes the first act. “The three women decide that they’re not going to wallow anymore; they’re going to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and keep living.”

About that music: the score is by the legendary Motown team, Holland-Dozier-Holland (Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland). And while “You Don’t Own Me,” the triumphant song from the film sung by Hawn, Keaton and Midler, isn’t in this production (it’s not a HollandDozier-Holland song), you can rest easy that the score is chock-a-block with Motown favorites like, “My World is Empty Without You,” “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch,” “Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” “Stop in the Name of Love” and more, along with some new original music that HDH wrote specifically for “First Wives Club.” “The music is very emotional,” says Bloodworth-Thomason.

Photo by Jenny Anderson.

Working with five-time Emmy Award-winner BloodworthThomason has been a dream for Sherrill. “Linda is an incredible writer. As an actor, it’s hard to learn this book, because it’s not your typical musical theatre language,” says Sherrill. “But here’s the thing: when we put it on its feet, the book is SO good. It’s so rewarding; so fluid, so natural. I would dare to say that the book is perfect.”

At its core, this show is about female friendship. It’s important for BloodworthThomason that the characters be strong and relatable. That’s the reputation she built with “Designing Women”— a brilliant writer who could seamlessly intertwine comedy and pathos while creating a community of women of which you wished you were a part.

“The story could easily be about three bitter women who hate men,” says Sherrill. “But who wants to see that? It turns from taking revenge on our exes to making something positive from this. [My character] goes through her trials and emerges a better person…this is still a story about love.”

Bloodworth-Thomason feels the same, and she wants to send a message to all women currently feeling marginalized. “There are so many young women out there who have been diminished by the culture, under-read and under-fed…I believe that most clearthinking women don’t want to be defined that way, and don’t want their daughters going down that path. Women are so much more than that!”

“First Wives Club” is a celebration of strength and resiliency in the face of misfortune; it’s humor and love and survival. And if it can match even half of the energy and talent of Sherrill and Thomason, it will be a big hit.

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